As COVID-19 cases surge to record-setting levels, state health officials announced Thursday that free rapid antigen testing will be available at pharmacies across Maine beginning next month.

Another 80 cases of COVID-19 were reported Thursday, and although there were no additional deaths, the seven-day average of new cases rose steeply to a new record, and some outbreaks grew larger.

“Rising case counts show that this virus is still very much among us and we must take every precaution to slow its spread,” Gov. Janet Mills said. She announced another 30-day extension of the state of civil emergency, maintaining her authority to establish requirements for mask wearing, social distancing and other measures that regulate business and social activity to protect public health.

There were 26 new cases recorded in Cumberland County, 14 in York County and seven in Androscoggin County.

Nationwide, cases are soaring, with a 41 percent increase in the daily average of new cases compared to two weeks ago, according to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker.

In Maine, the seven-day daily average jumped to 59.3, compared to 34.9 a week ago and 27.9 a month ago. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the virus is popping up in more far-flung areas of Maine, such as 26 cases in two days in Somerset County.

Shah said that while Maine is doing better than the nation as a whole, the climbing numbers are a worrisome trend that could result in exponential spread.

“What we are seeing right now in Maine is sustained, forceful and widespread community transmission across the entire state,” he said.

The agency reported an outbreak of 10 cases at Pat’s Pizza in the Old Port in Portland. Shah said anyone who ate at that location on Oct. 16 or Oct. 22 should monitor themselves for symptoms and consider getting tested.

An outbreak has expanded at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, and 12 inmates and six employees had tested positive as of Thursday, the state Department of Corrections said. Universal rapid testing is now underway for all inmates and staff, the department said.

There are currently 15 people hospitalized in Maine, with five in intensive care. Since the pandemic began, 6,467 Mainers have fallen ill with COVID-19, and 146 have died.

Maine’s overall testing capacity is well above the national average, with most test results coming back within 48 hours. But the new partnership with Walgreen’s pharmacies will beef up Maine’s limited rapid testing capabilities and produce results in 15 minutes.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced Walgreens will soon stock the rapid antigen tests, which are manufactured by Abbott Laboratories, an Illinois-based company with a lab and manufacturing plant in Scarborough and manufacturing plant in Westbrook.

Although anyone can be tested, state health leaders said the tests will be particularly useful for getting health care workers, teachers, corrections officers, first responders  and other essential employees back on the job if they test negative after being exposed to the virus.

Instead of waiting two weeks in quarantine, employees could be back to work within a day of getting a negative rapid test result, Shah said. An employer may want to repeat the test frequently, he said, depending on the circumstances of an exposure.

Shah said the rapid results and the frequency with which the tests can be given – as often as daily – give employers confidence that a negative test result means employees in essential roles are not contagious and can return to work.

Yasmine Sanchez of York Hospital holds a test swab while explaining the COVID-19 testing process to a woman at the drive-thru testing site at the York Hospital Walk-in Care clinic in York on Wednesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“That allows us to say with a high degree of certainty, because of the critical role you are providing, you can be on the job, wearing PPE, so long as you don’t have symptoms, with a low likelihood of introducing COVID-19 (to others),” Shah said.

He said that’s not true of the traditional molecular COVID-19 tests because there is a lag of about two days between when the sample is taken and when the results are obtained. That means the results are not current enough to recommend that a person be removed from quarantine.

The rapid tests are expected to be in 65 Walgreens locations throughout Maine as a drive-thru service starting sometime in November. A doctor’s note is not needed for the rapid tests, and anyone who thinks they need a test can get one under Maine’s standing order for COVID-19 tests.

Patients will “self-swab” their nasal cavity under the supervision of a pharmacy employee. The nasal swabs are less invasive than the deep nasal swab tests in use by what up until now has been the more common COVID-19 PCR molecular tests, which return results within 24 to 48 hours in Maine.

Shah said rapid antigen tests produce very reliable negative results but more false positives. If someone gets a positive result from a rapid test, they will be recommended to follow up with a PCR test.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said rapid results testing will help schools keep their doors open and functioning.

“We agree with the federal government that having rapid testing to help keep teachers, keep kids in schools or to keep people with COVID-19 out of schools is a high, great use of this test,” Lambrew said.

Maine is expected to get 400,000 of the Abbott tests by the end of December, with 300,000 set aside for Walgreens and 100,000 reserved for certain essential workers. Additional rapid tests are being sent to congregate care facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted living centers.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is distributing 150 million of the rapid tests to all states by the end of 2020 as part of an effort to ramp up testing capacity.

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